Friday, December 24, 2021 – כ׳ טֵבֵת תשפ״ב
Over the next several weeks, we will be exploring central concepts of Jewish life, Jewish Peoplehood, connection to Israel, and more. We will examine how we, as Reform Jews, approach and understand these concepts as presented in the Book of Exodus, which we begin to read this week. This week’s topic is Holiness. Thank you for reading.
וַיֹּ֖אמֶר אַל־תִּקְרַ֣ב הֲלֹ֑ם שַׁל־נְעָלֶ֙יךָ֙ מֵעַ֣ל רַגְלֶ֔יךָ כִּ֣י הַמָּק֗וֹם אֲשֶׁ֤ר אַתָּה֙ עוֹמֵ֣ד עָלָ֔יו אַדְמַת־קֹ֖דֶשׁ הֽוּא׃ (שמות ג:ה)
“And He said, “Do not come closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:5)
The Holy Land. We say it all the time. In Hebrew, we refer to it as “אֶרֶץ הַקּוֹדֶשׁ – Eretz HaKodesh”, Terra Sancta in Latin, and it is generally accepted as an understood term. But, what exactly does it mean for a Land to be Holy?
Having fled from Egypt after a passionate killing of an Egyptian slave master, Moses has a transformational encounter. Seeing a desert plant appear to burn, but not be consumed, he is then instructed to remove his shoes, “for the place on which you stand is holy ground.” No, this is not the origins of the TSA’s policy. Rather, it is the first time we encounter the notion of holiness ascribed to land. What was it that made it Holy? Are we to understand that the physical space in proximity to where Moses was standing in relation to the burning bush possessed a different status than an area further away? Or was it simply that the manifestation of the Divine Presence required Moses – a mere mortal – to perform an obligatory act to ascribe a sense of holiness, reverence, or even awe in this place?
Today, the term “Holy Land” generally refers to the Land of Israel, often seen through its biblical borders. It is the place where both Temples stood, and in which, as of the 16th-century Jewish lore, there were 4 holy cities (Hebron, Jerusalem, Tiberias, and Tzfat). Holiness is a term that is often applied but rarely clarified as to its precise meaning.
Professor Eliezer Schweid expounds on the concept of holiness in the following way:
“The uniqueness of the Land of Israel is…’geo-theological’ and not merely climatic. This is the land which faces the entrance of the spiritual world, that sphere of existence that lies beyond the physical world known to us through our senses. This is the key to the land’s unique status with regard to prophecy and prayer, and also with regard to the commandments.”
And the Mishnah establishes the concept clearly:
“There are ten degrees of holiness. The land of Israel is sanctified more than any other land. Wherein lays its holiness? From it are brought the omer, the first fruits, and the two loaves [offered on Shavuot], which may not be brought from any other land.
~ Masechet Kelim – Chapter 1, Mishnah 6
However, being sanctified is different from being holy. Sanctifying something means that it is designated for a sacred, ritual, or religious purpose – not that it somehow has inherent supernatural or magical qualities that make it different from something else.
Rabbi Prof. Louis Jacobs raised critically important questions about the inherent nature of holiness:
- Is one place holier than another?
It is hard to understand how the God whose glory fills the earth can be said to reside in one place more than another. Why is the building in which God is worshiped more God’s ‘house’ than any other spot-on earth?
- What meaning can be given to the idea that there are degrees of sanctity in which one place is more holy than another? Does this mean that there is a greater degree of in-dwelling in the holier place, and if it does how can it be said that God is located more definitely in one spot, less in another?
One way to understand this, as in the case of Moses and the bush, is to see the Divine as somehow actually located in the sacred spot – in a quasi-physical manner or especially manifested there.
However, I think that we as Reform Jews might choose to see holiness as determined more by experience and association. This view suggests that there is numinous power in the holy place, not due to any special in-dwelling of the Divine, but to the evocation of intense religious emotion [because] the place has been the scene of Divine revelation or of sustained and fervent worship. It is history that hallows the shrine.
Take, for instance, the Western Wall (HaKotel). We attribute a sense of holiness to it, not necessarily because of Divine manifestation, but rather due to its historical and nationalist significance, and consequently a collective agreement attributing to its sacred status.
Rav Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-1993), the spiritual founder of modern Orthodoxy, echoes this viewpoint, contradicting earlier Medieval teachings:
“For the Rishonim, the attribution of kedushah (holiness), ascribed to the Land of Israel is an objective metaphysical quality inherent in the Land.
With all my respect for the Rishonim, I must disagree with such an opinion.
I do not believe that it is halakhically cogent. Kedushah, under a halakhic aspect, is human-made; more accurately, it is a historical category. A soil is sanctified by historical deeds performed by a sacred people, never by any primordial superiority. The halakhic term ‘kedushat ha-aretz’, the sanctity of the land, denotes the consequence of a human act, either conquest (heroic deeds) or the mere presence of the people in the land (intimacy of humankind and nature). Kedushah is identical to humanity’s association with Mother Earth. Nothing should be attributed a priori to dead matter. Objective kedushah smacks of fetishism.”
The Israeli scholar Yeshayahu Leibovitz (1903-1994) offers a straightforward and decisive treatment of the question:
“Exalting the land itself to the rank of holiness is idolatry par excellence. [The Mishnah states]: ’There are ten degrees of holiness…’ We are not told that the land is holy but that it is sanctified [מקודשת].”
So why do we continue to refer to it as the Holy Land, and what should we as Reform Jews think about it?
One Reform approach is that of Rabbi Dick Hirsch (1926-2021):
“The State of Israel is the testing grounds for keeping the covenant between God and God’s people. How do Jews as a people create a just society when they are given responsibility? How do Jews use political power? How do Jews apply Jewish values in the everyday conditions of a Jewish society? How do Jews relate to issues of poverty, unemployment, health care and the aged? How does a Jewish government relate to a host of other issues that affect every society?”
Where Hirsch sees the notion of kedushah play out based on the fulfillment of inter-personal relations within a societal context, British Reform Rabbi Professor Jonathan Magonet argues:
“It is God’s presence that ensures the holiness of the land, not any special nature of the land itself. Indeed, God cannot be present in the land, so to speak, when it is polluted by the actions of the nations that preceded Israel — or by those of Israel itself.”
These approaches may be two different means to a similar end. It is important to note that our Reform thinkers are, at least theoretically, in agreement with the aforementioned Orthodox theologians and scholars: Holiness exists only when we, human beings, make it so.
Maybe the Kotel is only considered holy as a remnant of Herod’s Temple and as the central institution of both time and religious focus and had its holiness renewed in June of 1967, but should only be considered holy once again when values of tolerance, pluralism, and freedom of practice are on display as they would be when the Government of Israel implements a deal to make it such.
Moses took off his shoes in recognition that something powerful was happening in that space, maybe we should try doing the same? In today’s world, this may be exactly what is needed. To recognize the power of each person to sanctify, and then make holy our land, our people, and our connection between the two. We can think of it only as “A” Holy Land, and not “The Holy Land,” and that its holiness is in our hands.
 Schweid, Eliezer (1985). The Land of Israel: National Home Or Land of Destiny. Translated by Deborah Greniman. Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. Press, p. 56.
 Rabbi Louis Jacobs. “Holy Places,” Conservative Judaism 37:3 1984
 In Troy, Gil, The Zionist Ideas p. 263
 “Covenant and Holiness: Help or Hindrance in Seeking a Reform Theology of the State of Israel” in Journal of Reform Zionism, vol. 1, 1993